The Abortion Battle in the United States: Lessons for Israel


This issue is far away, and not a burning agenda item here, but an apparent ruling in the United States could teach Israel a significant lesson about the way principled discussions are conducted with respect to the Supreme Court and the ability of a determined minority to change reality.

We don’t entirely understand the abortion ruling in the United States. It’s not of interest to us, it’s none of our business. It’s a domestic issue and not of the utmost importance. Why, therefore, is it relevant? In part, because of our obsession with the Americans (imagine a similar dispute in India — whom would that concern?); in part because of the overall sense that what happens in America influences the rest of the world, even if it’s just a domestic issue; in part because sociopolitical tension in America means that America is focused on itself and doesn’t have time for us; in part because English is an accessible language and the American press is influential.

Does this really concern us? In fact, this issue reflects conditions in America and conditions in America impact us. So the answer is yes, but you can be interested in this issue because Israel can learn a number of lessons from it.

We Can Learn To Stop Fighting over Principle

In Israel, abortion is not the subject of any major public debate. That’s good. Sometimes it seems worthwhile to conduct a public debate on an issue, but what the Roe v. Wade matter teaches is that some debates are of little use but can cause great damage. For over 50 years, America has argued about a matter that could be generally resolved locally with little noise. Why are they debating? Because instead of dealing with solutions they are engaged with principles and symbols.

Is abortion “murder”? If so, it is clearly difficult to reconcile. Is preventing abortion “negating the right of a woman to control her body”? If so, it is clearly difficult to reconcile. From the moment you climb out on such a limb, it’s difficult to climb down. Apparently, sometimes you have no choice but to climb out on a limb. However, it’s a good idea to think twice before doing so because there are many limbs to cover, and if everyone is out on a limb, there’s no one on the ground who can find a practical solution. For example, abortion is a problematic way to solve a genuinely distressing situation, and the sooner efforts are made to resolve these situations, the better.

We Can Learn What the Court Can and Cannot Solve

In the 1970s, the Supreme Court tried to bring the ideologues down from their perch. The court set a rule and hoped that this would solve the problem. Instead, the situation got worse. Instead of fighting only over abortion, the debate engaged the court itself and whether it has the jurisdiction to render a decision. If the sitting Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade (and Planned Parenthood v. Casey) it will say, it’s not we who are deciding, it’s you. Not every problem is a nail and not every problem needs a hammer. Accordingly, not every problem is a matter of law and not every problem is solved by a court.

We Can Lean Not To Sanctify the Court

What is happening in America proves that the sanctity of the Supreme Court is an ideological invention that serves whomever the court is siding with at a particular moment. For Israelis, the left wing deifies the court. Why? Because it seems to the left wing that the court serves those goals close to their heart and defends Israel from sinking into social and ethical catastrophe.

In America, the situation is the opposite. The court is now the darling of the right wing. Why? Because the right wing believes the court is serving those goals close to their heart and defending America from sinking into social and ethical catastrophe. In both cases, this is a way of sanctifying one’s position. The court itself is not important, but one’s positions are. The left wing should remember that a very strong court can change overnight to a court that disappoints. The right wing should remember that a weak court can stop working in its favor, even when there are justices it likes.

We Can Learn To Sanctify the Court

And here is a different lesson. Is the Supreme Court holy? Then you should respect it even if it rules in a way that you disagree with. Perhaps the word “holy” is inappropriate. Perhaps a better description is centralistic. The Supreme Court is an important federal institution. Like every federal institution, it is surrounded by ideological struggle. The Supreme Court does not issue truth; it issues an opinion and can bring disparate rulings to an end. This requires that all sides respect the court’s decision and see it as the final word. Why is this a good thing for everyone? Because this is what allows a kingdom to function.

We Can Learn that Sometimes, the Minority Decides

How is it that the majority of the American public does not oppose abortion while some states still severely restrict the procedure, despite a decision by the Supreme Court? This can absolutely happen. It is what happens when there is a small, determined, goal-focused group of people facing off against a larger group of people who are more apathetic and less engaged in achieving an objective.

Take Texas, for example. Some 45% of Texans support banning abortion either completely or with exceptions for rape or incest. Some 50% are even ready to accept abortion in other cases (although some of them not in all cases). What does this say about the final result in the struggle over abortion in Texas? Not much.

If a resounding minority is determined and a small majority fails to fight, Texas will ban abortions in all cases except for rape and incest. In contrast, if legislators understand that a Texas law is so severe it could bring a change in government, they will find a way to enact law that keeps the minority from revolting and reasonably satisfies the majority. Abortions will take place, but not in every instance (which is what 39% of Texas voters want).

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About Charles Railey 28 Articles
I recently retired from the federal government, having worked for many years on Middle East issues and regional media. My fascination with the region has never changed and this is one reason why the work of Watching America caught my eye. I live in the DC area with my wife, two grown children, and three cats.

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